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History of Exeter Chiefs

History of Exeter Chiefs

by Leana Kell

Exeter Chiefs

Exeter Rugby Club, or Exeter Chiefs (as they are better known) are a Rugby Union club based in Exeter in Devon. The club is currently part of the Aviva Premiership and has enjoyed a wealth of success since its humble beginnings back in 1871. 

Throughout the years, Exeter has helped carve careers for a number of players taking many to international level. The club prides itself on "long-lasting traditions of sportsmanship, honour and team work" and sees these attributes as the key to its long-standing success.

Based in relatively new grounds, Exeter Chiefs' progression over the past two decades is evident. Now playing to crowds of 11,000 and more, Exeter remains one of the key clubs to watch this season. 

The Early Years

The first match the club ever played was against St Luke's training college on 26th October in 1873. Twenty years later, the club moved to the Cricket Field at St Thomas (the former County Ground).

The Devon County Ground was formed in 1893 and contained a grandstand of just 700 seats. Exeter Football Club (as they were then known) were one of the first clubs to use the grounds, but soon they were sharing with cricket clubs, cycling events and even the annual horse show, making the groundsman's job very difficult at times!

The Second World War saw the ground taken over by the military, mostly for army transport, and the American forces' preparation for D-Day, but the ground remained home to Exeter's rugby team throughout and for many years after, right up until 2006.

Sandy Park Stadium

In the 1990s Exeter Rugby Club turned semi-professional and changed their name to the Exeter Chiefs, a nickname dating back to the 1930s. The club grew in popularity and subsequently there became a growing need to increase the spectator capacity, which was only 5,200 with 750 seated in the grandstand at County Ground.

In 2002, the Chiefs starting looking for new premises and soon the decision was made to build a new stadium at Sandy Park near Sowton. The stadium now had a maximum capacity of 8,200, which allowed the Chiefs to achieve premiership status. In 2006, the club officially moved to Sandy Park having played regularly at the County Ground for more than 100 years.

Sandy Park can now accommodate 12,600 spectators and there are plans to increase its capacity to 20,600. The first phase of the expansion began in 2014 when the Stadium itself underwent a huge £12 million redevelopment plan, doubling the capacity of the West Grandstand and East Terrace, as well as introducing the new Desso-made playing surface, which now allows the team to train as well as play on the pitch.

Sandy Park is now one of the biggest club rugby grounds in England and recently hosted three of the matches played at the Rugby World Cup 2015 in September.

The Semi-Professional Era

Former Director of Rugby, Ian Bremner, oversaw the early years of the semi-professional era at the County Ground when the chiefs would regularly challenge for the top division, but more often than not were beaten by sides such as Leeds Tykes, Rotherham and Worcester. During his time managing the club, Bremner's influence was fundamental to the future of the Chiefs and by the time he left, the club was already moving in the direction with a new stadium and a new former player in charge.

The Professional Era

The biggest transformation of Exeter Rugby Clubhappened since the club turned professional in the late 1990s when they rebranded to Exeter Chiefs. Former England Under-20s team manager, Pete Drewett, took charge of the new-look full-time squad in 2006, the same year the club moved into their new state-of-the-art stadium at Sandy Park.

Despite their best efforts the club drew 13-13 at their first home game against Coventry but by the end of Drewitt's first year, the Chiefs were in fourth position in the standings.

The race was on to join the premiership, but after falling behind the Northampton Saints and Leeds for two further years, in March 2009 Drewitt was replaced by former England International Robin Cowling with Rob Baxter named Head Coach for the 2009/10 season.

Along with the help of former Northampton and England fly-half Ali Hepher and former Exeter player, Ricky Pellow, the Chiefs instantly found their place within the new-look RFU Championship, playing fellow runners up Bristol in the first-ever Play-Off final for a chance to win a place in the Premiership. In front of a record crowd at Sandy Park, the Chiefs managed a narrow 9-6 lead and the dream of Premiership rugby began!

The Aviva Premiership

And so started the hard work for Baxter and his staff and players, many of whom had never experienced life in the top division before. However, the Chiefs made a great start when they produced a stunning opening day win over Gloucester - the first of 10 league wins the Chiefs would produce during the season before the club eventually finished in eighth place.

The second year in the premiership saw the club advance further, and by the end of the year the Chiefs had not only collected 12 Premiership wins but they finished fifth place in the league, securing a place amongst Europe's top clubs in the Heineken Cup.

2012/2013 was a challenging but exciting year for the Chiefs playing against the Premiership and also Europe. They proved they could hold their own even amongst Europe's most elite clubs, with home and away victories over the Scarlets and a sixth place finish in the Premiership including an impressive last-day victory over Gloucester at Sandy Park.

It was the 2013/14 season when the Chiefs finally won their first cup, achieving a 15-9 victory on home soil against the Northampton Saints in the LV= Cup, thanks to the outstanding achievements of Skipper Dean Mumm, Chris Whitehead and rising fly-half Henry Slade.

The 2014/2015 season saw further progress both on and off the field. New faces included England international Thomas Waldrom from Leicester Tigers who finished the season with 17 tries and who helped the club achieve their best ever fifth position. The Chiefs just missed out on reclaiming their LV=Cup title against Saracens at Northampton, whilst the club played in their first-ever European semi-final.

A number of high profile players joined the club for the 2015/16 season to include England and British Lions lock Geoff Parking, Italian International Michele Campagnaro, Australian flanker Julian Salvi and Bath flyer Ollie Woodburn. As the Chiefs aim to push even higher up the Premiership table this year they will, once again, be targeting games against the likes of Saints, Saracens, Bath and Leicester as must-win games. Currently taking second position in the Premiership, if they play well, its predicted they could finish a record fourth at the end of the season.